“What’s most annoying is that no one knew about #anarmslength before. Think how much women could have prevented!” one German woman tweeted. “If you’ve got short arms, you can just carry two umbrellas. That way you’re sure to keep the right distance,” said another.
On the surface, Reker’s comments were probably well-meaning. She’s not wrong to try to advise women on sexual-assault prevention, which needs all the awareness it can get. Plus, Reker is a victim of assault herself. A day before she was elected mayor last October—the first female mayor in Cologne’s history—a man opposed to Reker’s refugee-friendly policies stabbed her in the neck with a knife. And after all, it’s her job as mayor to publicly express concern about the safety and welfare of her roughly 1 million constituents. Stay alert, be vigilant, that kind of thing.
But never mind that it’s unrealistic to expect enough room at a crowded street festival to keep anyone at arm’s length. In another way, #einarmlaenge isn’t about staying alert, being vigilant, that kind of thing. It’s a suggestion that women change their behavior in order to avoid being harassed by men. It seems to place the responsibility for the prevention of sexual violence not on those who perpetrate it, but on those who endure it.
“An arm’s length” is like much of the advice women have been given—by government officials and college presidents and other women, in countries around the world—to avoid attracting “negative attention,” which could lead to sexual violence. Drink less alcohol at parties. Wear more clothes. Don’t ride public transportation alone at night. Marry a man. In Israel in the 1970s, after a series of violent rapes, one politician suggested women be put under curfew until the perpetrators were caught. “Men are committing the rapes,” responded Golda Meir, then the prime minister. “Let them be put under curfew.”
As Amanda Hess wrote in Slate in 2013, “Rape is a societal problem, not a self-help issue. Parents can tell their own daughters not to get drunk, but even if those women follow instructions, it won’t keep other people’s daughters safe.” German government officials can tell women to stay an arm’s length away from strangers, but that won’t keep women in India or Russia or the United States safe.
Reker hasn’t yet, to my knowledge, followed up her advice to women with a suggestion that men prevent sexual assault by not committing it. But here are a few suggestions worth considering. In 2011, a list of 10 “rape-prevention tips” mocking the tenor of the advice given to women made the rounds on the Internet. These were aimed at men. “If you are in an elevator and a woman gets in, don’t rape her,” one tip explained. “Use the buddy system! If it is inconvenient for you to stop yourself from raping women, ask a trusted friend to accompany you at all times,” advised another.